Fake News and Fake Vision Zero

The year 1990 was formative for me. I was a wee undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; I had just started to ride my bike around for transportation; and I attended my first public protest — No Blood for Oil — an anti-war gathering during the first invasion of Iraq.

It was also the year I became a regular reader of a small, local satirical paper started by one of my classmates, The Onion. The Onion has grown since then, and I have kept up with it. It is always a smirky joy to see the paper cover issues I face at work, like the headline “98% of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transport for Others,” or this gem: “No One Seems to Care that Area Man’s Bike Was Stolen.”

Four years after I moved from Madison to New York City, The Onion did too. The New York Times covered the move appropriately: “Pod People Invade, Posing as Satirists.” Like I strove to be, The Onion staff was self-aware of their humble Midwestern roots when they asked the Times, “Who are these Hamptons we keep hearing about? Are they related to the MOMAs?”

My longtime love for The Onion grew greater when, a few years after Citi Bike launched, they published a story titled “New York Introduces Shoe Sharing Program for City’s Pedestrians.” Just last month, they ran a short piece about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new national Vision Zero program. The headline played it straight: “DOT Aims to End Traffic Deaths in 30 Years.” But The Onion’s ersatz interviewees nailed it. “Can’t we just work on accepting the number of deaths we have?” one said. Another was on-point: “I don’t know. There will always be reckless assholes like me out there.”

You know your issue has hit the big time when the U.S. DOT takes it up, but I was convinced that Vision Zero had gone mainstream when it became the subject of parody. And like all of the fake news in The Onion, under the layers of snark is a pungent truth at the core. “New ‘Get the Fuck Outta the Road’ Program Aims to Increase Pedestrian Safety” is not just another recent Onion headline; sadly, it is the victim-blaming focus of many new safety programs claiming to be Vision Zero. There’s a lot of fake Vision Zero out there.

Even here in New York City — known as an originator and paragon of Vision Zero — we still violate two of Vision Zero’s key precepts: data over anecdote, and human life over mobility. Kelly Hurley’s death is but the most recent example of how the NYPD is preserving their long-held canard that walkers and bikers have it coming. After Hurley was killed by a truck driver who failed to yield, the police department launched a ticket blitz aimed at cyclists.

After Hurley was killed by a truck driver who failed to yield, the police department launched a ticket blitz aimed at cyclists.

Our own DOT, which is doing so much right, also still has their Vision Zero work hamstrung by a soft spot for parking spaces and vehicle flow. If human life were truly prioritized, then every intersection in New York City would be daylighted (a.k.a. removing parking spaces at corners to increase drivers’ visibility of pedestrians), protected bike lanes would be the norm (not the exception), and people walking and biking would have their own signal phase (free from turning traffic).

At the core of fake Vision Zero is a sacred cow called the car. There are simply too many cars, and too much space and deference, given to them and their drivers. David Gurin, Rivvy Berkman, Barry Benepe, and the other founders of Transportation Alternatives knew that it was impossible to only “promote bicycling, walking and transit,” which is why our mission statement does not end there. Transportation Alternatives’ mission is also to “reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile.”

Or, to let The Onion say it: “Tired of Traffic? New DOT Report Urges Drivers, ‘Honk’.”

Speaking at TransAlt’s Vision Zero Cities Conference in May, Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed to understand how incompatible Vision Zero is with our auto-centric value system. “A mythology has been created over generations about the automobile,” he said, “but it’s a mythology that no longer works for us.”

“A mythology has been created over generations about the automobile,” he said, “but it’s a mythology that no longer works for us.”

Before the 1920s, public streets were outdoor marketplaces and play spaces for children. When they became car corridors, and thousands of kids were being killed in traffic crashes every year, a new language developed to diagnose who or what was to blame. In the newspapers and common parlance, the car was a “modern Moloch” and dangerous drivers were “speed maniacs” and “death drivers” with “gasoline rabies.” When public street space was lost to car use, it was called the “parking evil.” The City Club of New York published a “municipal murder map,” plotting where drivers had killed children.

Good satire, The Onion knows, is about seeing the truth and pointing it out. So, too, was our earliest language about cars in our cities. As Vision Zero goes mainstream, it will be our most important work to call out the elephant in the street for what it is. Cars possess too much kinetic energy to operate at speed around pedestrians. Cars are heavy machinery. Cars are inherently destructive to human-scale cities. Cars are outmoded technology. Cars are space hogs. Cars are the problem.